Black women are familiar with certain facts about cervical cancer –how it is caused and that it is preventable. Yet they are still dying at a disproportionately higher rate. Although cervical cancer occurs most often in Hispanic women, Black women tend to have lower 5-year survival rates and die more often than any other race. In fact, Black women have twice the cervical cancer mortality rate compared to white women.
Doctors have long thought that less access to screening and follow-up health care were the reasons black women in the U.S. are 40 percent more likely to develop cervical cancer and twice as likely to die from it. The new study involving young college women suggests there might be a biological explanation for the racial disparity, too.
Since infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer and precancers, it is important to avoid genital HPV infection. There are genetic differences between the races and it’s possible that a gene from certain ancestries that might play a role in the ability for Black women to clear an HPV infection, thus making their risk much higher.
This may mean delaying sex, limiting the number of sex partners, and avoiding a sex partner who has had several other partners. Condoms are important to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but they can’t give full protection against HPV since there may be skin to skin contact of exposed areas which can transmit the virus.
Two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, have been approved for use in girls and young women to help prevent cervical cancer. Gardasil immunizes against certain strains of HPV which cause 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital wart cases and is effective for at least five years. Cervarix is effective against the two main strains of HPV virus that causes cervical cancer and last for over six years.
1. Get a regular Pap smear. The Pap smear can be the greatest defenses for cervical cancer. The Pap smear can detect cervical changes early before they turn into cancer. Check cervical cancer screening guidelines to find out how often you should have a Pap smear, or check with your doctor.
2. Limit the amount of sexual partners you have. Studies have shown women who have many sexual partners increase their risk for cervical cancer. They also are increasing their risk of developing HPV, a known cause for cervical cancer.
3. Quit smoking or avoid secondhand smoke. Smoking cigarettes increases your risk of developing many cancers, including cervical cancer. Smoking combined with an HPV infection can actually accelerate cervical dysplasia. Your best bet is to kick the habit.
4. If you are sexually active, use a condom. Having unprotected sex puts you at risk for HIV and other STD’s which can increase your risk factor for developing cervical cancer.
5. Follow up on abnormal Pap smears. If you have had an abnormal Pap smear, it is important to follow up with regular Pap smears or colposcopies, whatever your doctor has decided for you. If you have been treated for cervical dysplasia, you still need to follow up with Pap smears or colposcopies. Dysplasia can return and when undetected, can turn into cervical cancer.
6. Get the HPV vaccine. If you are under 27, you may be eligible to receive the HPV vaccine, which prevents high risk strains of HPV in women. The HPV vaccine, Gardasil, was approved by the FDA to give to young girls as young as 9. The vaccine is most effective when given to young women before they become sexually active.